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On a wing and a prayer

`It's a Wonderful Life' is a film classic, but the production wasn't always angelic.

December 23, 2006|Stephen Cox | Special to The Times

IT is arguably one of the most magnetic moments ever captured on film. This enduring celluloid juncture from 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life" can be summoned to mind by merely mentioning "the prayer scene." In it, a tearfully reduced George Bailey -- played by Jimmy Stewart -- sits at a bar and contemplates taking his own life, then clasps his hands and quietly asks for God's intervention.

And while filming this key moment, this pivotal point in the picture, Frank Capra goofed -- big time.

Despite a reputation for being fastidiously well prepared, the veteran director had no idea that his star would turn on the waterworks and deliver such an impassioned, intimate performance on the first take. It was something overwhelming even for Stewart himself.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Jimmy Stewart: A Dec. 23 Calendar article about the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" said actor Jimmy Stewart had served as a fighter pilot. He flew bombers when he was in the military.

So the cameras rolled, the music and bustle in the bar erupted, and the scene played out -- but when it was over, Capra realized his angle was too distant. And he had failed to capture a close-up of the emotionally draining scene. Capra apologized and asked his Oscar-winning star to replicate it, but a spent Stewart knew he'd nailed it and couldn't fathom a re-creation as effective as the one he'd just poured out.

To remedy the situation, during postproduction the director and his editor manually and painstakingly moved in -- frame by frame. It created what appears to be an optical zoom.

Luckily for Capra, the result was near perfection.

It's no mystery why this year the American Film Institute named Capra's postwar classic "It's a Wonderful Life" the most inspiring motion picture ever made.

To most, it's an enriching, sentimental Christmas favorite not to be missed -- almost sacrilege when viewed during any other season.

It's all the more remarkable that this homespun movie, which was not initially envisioned as a "holiday" film, has become so entrenched in popular culture, such a beloved tradition for families to share.

Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm -- this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.

Capra shot much of the film on a specially constructed quaint-town set located at RKO's ranch in the San Fernando Valley -- a site that has long been overtaken by property development. In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.

Without question, however, is the fact that audiences trusted Capra to deliver such patriotisms, all neatly wrapped with a ribbon and bow. Like "Meet John Doe" (1941), about a lie that sparks a political movement. Some critics accused Capra of presenting a "naive" faith in the common man within a syrupy-slick presentation. So skillful in his flair for filmmaking and eliciting emotion, his titles were once called "Capra-corn."

But the Oscar-winning director has had the last laugh.

"It's a Wonderful Life" keeps popping its way back into homes on television, in commercials, on DVD, routinely broadcast twice each season on NBC. (It's being broadcast Sunday night.)

Capra, an Italian-born filmmaker who gave us such early classics as "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," died in 1991, but not before witnessing "It's a Wonderful Life" take on iconic wings of sort when television began airing it regularly in the 1970s.

The movie transcended time and soared well beyond his imagination.

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

In probably his best-loved role, and a dark one at that, Stewart plays selfless everyman George Bailey through a tumultuous timeline that climaxes in near suicide on Christmas Eve. In answer to his desperate prayer at the bar, George is rescued by an unlikely angel with a smiling marshmallow face -- a little fellow named Clarence -- who convinces him that life is precious and that each man's life touches another with untold influence.

"I think, as the story unfolds," Stewart explained years ago, "it becomes clear that the movie is about hope, love and friendship."

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